Winning the battle against the populists means foregrounding and addressing social inequalities, not presuming political liberalism monopolises the alternative.
For many years, French trade unionism has faced a deep crisis. The unionisation rate has dropped from 20 to 8 per cent since the late 1970s, making France the industrial nation with the smallest number of organised workers as well as the fastest loss of members over the last generation.
One of the reasons for this downward trend is a fragmented trade-union landscape, where eight federations—divided between reformers and hardliners—are brawling for influence. Especially the ‘big two’, the social-democratic CFDT and the left-wing CGT, are competing in a spirit of rivalry. Moreover, French trade unions have been unable to achieve political successes for many years—even though social conflict in France steadily grew during the 1990s and 2000s.
The decline of French unionism is part of a more general trend. As John Evans argues, intermediary institutions are increasingly marginalised in their traditional field of action—distributive justice. The problems trade unions address are more visible today than ever during the postwar era. But populists are trying to take their place by picking up those important questions—and providing simplistic answers.
The strategic behaviour of populist parties on distributional issues is only one facet of a major phenomenon. The rise of populism is leading to two important shifts in public discourse which threaten the very existence of trade unions and other mediating institutions.
First, there is a shift driven by the populists themselves. In their narrative, intermediary institutions are part of the ‘establishment’ and do not serve the interests of ‘the people’. For populists, there is simply no need to filter or organise different opinions, because ‘the people’ is a homogenous category and speaks with a single (national) voice. Claiming to be the only true representatives of this ‘popular will’, populists reject any expression of pluralism through mediating institutions.
Secondly, there is an indirect effect of the populist momentum, which might be equally dangerous for the trade-union movement. Liberal politicians, parties and even the media have contributed, deliberately or not, to the construction of a new dominant cleavage—‘progressives’ versus ‘populists’. The underlying assumption of this cleavage—that politics is a battle of ‘good’ against ‘evil’—leaves little or no room for constructive debate. Those who are not in favour of the liberal mainstream are to blame for undermining the unity of the democratic bloc. When controversy is missing, however, trade unions, and other proponents of broad societal debate, are obsolete.
The example of France is highly instructive. The populist gilets jaunes movement has added to the crisis of French trade unions. With their uncompromising stance and their radical approach, the gilets jaunes turned out to be much more effective than institutionalised bargaining involving union representatives. The concessions which the president, Emmanuel Macron, was obliged to make came quickly and were surprisingly comprehensive—items trade unions had failed to achieve in years of negotiations and strikes were secured in less than a month through spontaneous street protests and occupied roundabouts.
Given their success, the gilets jaunes could constitute a precedent: in times of increasingly precarious and atypical employment, the workplace might no longer be the principal theatre for social conflict. With the streets becoming the new stage, new actors—loosely co-ordinated, based on ‘social-media’ networking, without long-term commitment—could eventually replace social dialogue.
The fact that trade unions are challenged on a new stage has another implication: the gilets jaunes represented trade unionists as part of the ‘elite’. Nowadays unionists, whether at company level or in the governance of social security systems, are perceived as ‘co-managers’ rather than workers’ representatives.
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This change in perception, shaped through neoliberal policies over recent decades, has increased the distance between trade unions and the people they ought to represent, leading to a loss of trust in the institutions themselves. Among the supporters of the gilets jaunes, only 20 per cent trust trade unions. By using different platforms and channels, they have created an instrumental alternative to social dialogue, built upon the populist refusal of ‘elitist institutions’.
On the other side of the political spectrum, Macron fuels the emergence of a new cleavage of ‘progressives versus populists’. Since his electoral campaign in 2017, he has tried to confine the political arena to the opposition between his liberal-centre La République en Marche and Marine Le Pen’s far-right Rassemblement National. He wants to dismantle the traditional left-right cleavage and reconstruct the progressive camp under the hegemony of the presidential movement. Trade unions and other critical voices are nothing but unwelcome competitors.
Since the second round of the 2017 elections, political discourse and the media have focused more and more on this new ideological cleavage—at the expense of lines of material conflict. Although the gilets jaunes brought distributive justice back to the fore, public discourse is now deeply marked by the new cleavage.
To respond to the double attack from populists and a new generation of liberals, trade unions have to build their strategy on a different line of political conflict—a cleavage over inequalities. As Thomas Piketty, Branko Milanovic and many others have shown, social inequalities are structural and will continue to grow. The line of conflict opposing ‘haves and have-nots’ has a great advantage compared with the ‘progressives versus populists’ cleavage: instead of reducing politics to the pros and cons of liberal democracy, it enables a debate on how exactly democracy should work. Hence, it gives intermediary institutions, as vectors of collective interests, a raison d’être in the 21st century.
First, the material cleavage is socially inclusive: it addresses issues which concern society as a whole, such as inequalities of wealth and income. Therefore, it is the best remedy against what Mark Lilla calls ‘identity politics’—atomised societies shaped by small lobby groups which focus on minority interests alone. Representing working people on what unites them rather than what makes them different from one another, trade unions contribute to social integration and cohesion.
Secondly, the material line of conflict is genuinely democratic: it highlights the fact that in a democracy the markets are subordinated to political decision-making. If there is a majority in favor of social progress—for instance, more worker participation at company level—the ‘invisible hand’ of the market cannot and will not stop a democratic majority. The inequalities cleavage also urges us to question the political influence of global business networks and to make them accountable for the downsides of globalisation.
Finally, the socio-economic cleavage is participatory and sustainable: by foregrounding class interests and structural disparities between labour and capital, it stresses the importance of intermediary institutions—simply because they are indispensable for the representation of aggregated collective interests. Therefore, it makes citizens engage with politics in a sustainable manner and enables comprehensive feedback, (re-)connecting decision makers and citizens.
The 21st century is about to establish new rules for the functioning of politics and the economy. Under the growing influence of populism, the construction of the public space is subject to change—and so are intermediary institutions. Stressing the inequalities cleavage, to repoliticise the institutional arena, is only one important step among many others.
As the French example shows, solidarity among unions, strong efforts to organise youth and bold responses to the big societal questions—climate change, digitalisation and globalisation—are at least as crucial as public discourse.